Selah Creek Arches by WSDOT

The Anatomy of Change

What we’ve learned from our own gender bias workshop

For the last couple of years, Mule has been running a workshop called Cut the Bias to help women in design and technology organizations overcome gender bias. We started this workshop after identifying a central flaw in most anti-bias training. Too often, even the organizations that truly want to reduce bias and be more inclusive treat bias as a knowledge problem, not a habit problem. (Beliefs are also a habit.) They run mandatory trainings on the assumption that once everyone knows about the issue, change will just happen.

We’ve known about gender bias for decades (for certain values of “we”), so clearly that isn’t it. Changing a complex set of behaviors and beliefs takes much more than letting everyone know that the behavior is a problem in some abstract way, especially when there are so many incentives to keep doing the same thing. I know that getting out for a run in the morning will improve my whole day, but ask me again when my alarm goes off at 6am.

(One of the funny things about organizations is that they will talk about the difficulty of influencing the irrational, intractable habits and beliefs of their customers or constituencies all day long and never say “Whoa, look, we are made of those very same sort of humans!” with some exceptions. )

After talking with women from design teams, engineering teams, administration, and product, in both individual contributor and management roles, we’ve learned a few things we want to share. Some of them might seem obvious, but that doesn’t make them any easier to change. Knowing a bad behavior is common can actually kill the desire to work for change, because it’s like hey, everyone is doing it.

Underrepresentation creates so much extra work for people in the underrepresented group

This might be the most obvious of all, but it is worth repeating because people in leadership roles aren’t getting it and it’s not changing. The whole point of addressing bias is so that everyone can just come in and do their damn jobs without having to do the extra work of proving themselves in every interaction. Sometimes, solutions that seem like the right thing to do end up exacerbating the problem.

For example, women on engineering teams trying to recruit more women end up getting pulled into a disproportionate amount of job interviews, yet are still expected to be productive engineers or risk getting labeled as “diversity hires” themselves. This also increases the chance that men will be interviewed by men, which can reinforce existing biases.

Even just deciding what to wear every day takes more effort. If you are part of an underrepresented group in a monoculture, there is no way to “blend in,” with the dominant culture, so you have to choose how to stand out.

When faced with bias, people in underrepresented groups find themselves taking on more work unquestioningly out of a sense of duty, or just being so accustomed to accommodating asymmetrical expectations. Supporting individuals who say “no” is the responsibility of managers

Our workshop is based on the question “How can the people most affected do less work, not more?” All leaders with a commitment to inclusion should be asking this.

Status quo bias is huge in successful organizations

This means a lot of people will agree with change in the abstract, but be extremely resistant to doing anything other than what has worked in the past. Leadership and management have to be honest with themselves about their own resistance to change and make an effort to reward different behavior.

People are tired of talking about this topic

I know I am.

There is a lot of fatigue around diversity and bias because the ratio of talking to results is way off. You know when we can stop talking about it? When we figure out how to fix it, which takes making it everyone’s problem. Allies get cranky when they continue to be named as part of the problem, but lack effective tools for change beyond just acknowledging their privilege and taking responsibility for their own actions.

So, let’s solve for improving collaboration and inclusivity and really mean it. That means embracing how much work it takes. This also means being wary of cheerleading “women!” in general rather than recognizing and representing the specific contributions of women. Reframe the conversation around inclusivity to a conversation about core business success and then consciously include more people in it.

Having the space to talk about problems is good, but it has to be tied to action

An essential outcome of the workshop is the set of individual commitments and plan for action, and follow-through, that comes out of it. It’s easy to vent and return to the same set of habits, even if those habits are harmful. Change is hard, even on those who benefit from it.

Often the feedback we get includes a request for more specific “tips and tricks”. This happens because the work culture has defined bias as a problem between individuals that can be solved with information, rather than a systemic challenge.

You can have a company full of people who consider themselves feminists and still have structural bias

Here is a classic: the research and design teams are mostly women and the engineering team is mostly men. Research and design are highly visible early in the process, but not so much later on. The men who build the product based on the work and insights of women get the credit for product success. None of the men who got the credit intentionally “took” it from the women.

Or maybe the organization rewards and recognizes individual contributors more than teams, setting up a competition to get credit for ideas.

Or maybe the organizations publicly acknowledges and lauds certain types of work and communicates that type of work is more valuable. And it turns out women are doing most of the essential “invisible” work. What an organization tracks and measures is what it values.

Or because the organization is really trying to cultivate new talent and increase diversity, all of the senior people are men and all of the women are more junior, which strengthens the association between gender and expertise.

Just improving and rewarding collaboration across the board without reference to gender can be helpful. And stop, just stop, giving jerks a pass.

Wow, a lot of organizations have poorly facilitated meetings

Yes we all know that meetings are problematic, and yet. Meetings are often important for exchanging information or making decisions. Meeting participation can be critical to determining one’s professional reputation and expertise. We know that it can be hard for women or quieter individuals to be heard. And meetings also have a reputation for straight up sucking.

What has been surprising to us is the total Lord of the Flies approach that even some successful, established companies take. There’s no explicit agenda. There’s no protocol. No one is responsible for articulating the successful outcome or making sure it happens. High status people are free to ignore meetings that need their participation. Or the presence of high status people turns a work session into a political performance. Aggressive people dominate the conversation. Meetings turn into zero-sum, in group/out group competitions.

Simply having some some explicit lightweight groundrules that apply to everyone regardless of status and someone empowered to enforce them can yield huge benefits. Kevin Hoffman wrote a book. Get it.

If formal meetings are dysfunctional, that increases the chances that important conversations take place using informal channels.

Informal processes will support the dominant culture

In fast-growing organizations, scale can outpace process. Without an explicit commitment to inclusivity that is manifested in norms and processes, any biases of the founding team or leadership are magnified. Without a process, interpersonal issues are treated as personal problems and there is no explicit standard to refer to when a member of an underrepresented group is treated unfairly, or bullied, or just plain ignored. Instead of shrugging and saying “That’s just how we do things around here” leaders need to ask “Are we creating the conditions in which everyone can contribute their best work to shared goals?”

And it really doesn’t take much process. Mostly it takes genuine intention, and of course, follow through.

Social activities are often a really fraught part of implicit job expectations

Social activities can be really good for teams. Drinking with co-workers can be fun. Equating manditoryish team activities with after-hours drinking is bad because it will make everyone who doesn’t want to stay after hours or drink seem like they are not part of the team even when drinking beer at 8pm (or at any time really) is not part of the job description. I know it takes some nuance to negotiate this reality.

This conversation around inclusive social events at work and conferences has really taken off, which is great, but look at this horrible page I found.

Sweden has fika, the afternoon coffee break. It takes place during work hours, and is traditionally alcohol-free. Maybe try that.

Management needs to do separate, different work

You have to have an honest look at problems to fix them. Nothing kills candor like mixing people from different levels in the hierarchy, even in supposedly flat organizations. Managers tend to either propose top-down solutions or defend the status quo, and everyone else will refrain from saying anything potentially career-limiting, especially if they feel like they had to fight to get to where they are.

However, management understanding and support are essential for anything to change. So, establishing internal feedback loops is a part of the work.

And getting people together from the same level across disciplines is very good for identifying patterns and potential solutions, and just general we’re-all-in-this-togetherness.

It’s an incremental process

Every individual interaction is an opportunity to establish a new pattern within a larger organizational context. The path to a bigger, better future is paved with the small changes that stick.